The SportsTurf Interview: Kim Heck, STMA CEO

This month we feature Kim Heck, CEO of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

SportsTurf: Your being hired by STMA signaled a leap into the “big leagues” for the association; what factors did you consider when deciding whether to take the job?

Heck: I was really excited about all of the possibilities for STMA. The STMA Board was working so hard to move the association forward. To have their confidence that I could execute their vision was energizing, and I couldn’t turn that down. In some associations the Board second guesses and micro-manages the CEO and staff. I knew that wouldn’t happen at STMA. I knew I would be given the leeway to do my job and there was a commitment to providing the resources I needed. Another factor that was important to me was being able to re-establish the headquarters in my hometown of Lawrence, KS. I still had kids in high school.

SportsTurf: What experiences in your career prepared you to take over leadership of a national organization?

Heck: Being in a high position at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America really helped to prepare me for CEO at STMA. I had great role models there in CEO Steve Mona and COO Joe O’Brien. Just about everything I’ve done in my career is useful, though. My background in marketing and advertising really helps, especially since we are a small-staffed association. Many of the programs that we provide need these skills.

I worked for one of the fastest growing companies in the US, as defined by Inc. Magazine. I was employee number 12 when I joined and when the company was sold 5 years later, it had 3,500 employees. You can imagine the changes that organization went through. The word “fast-paced” does not come close to describing that environment! It was really great prep for non-profit work because although our pace may not be as frenetic, an association exec really has a lot of balls to keep in the air at one time.

There are always experiences that make you uncomfortable, and those, too, are great prep for leading an association. One comes to mind: I was in the advertising business and meeting with a client who asked me in front of a huge group of people to give my next pitch in my swimsuit—these situations really help hone your diplomacy skills.

SportsTurf: When you started the job how did you come to understand all aspects of the industry?

Heck: I had basic knowledge of the green industry, and specifically the golf course superintendents’ roles and challenges. Sports turf management definitely has similarities, but has vast differences, too. I read a lot and listened hard to my Committees and Board members and asked a lot of questions. Many were quite dumb, I’m sure.

I am often asked to give interviews by Buffalo Communications, our public relations firm. I always make it clear that I can speak about STMA and its vision, but that for questions on field management practices and technologies, I will find an expert to provide comments. I would certainly not be credible speaking to those subjects without a formal education in turfgrass science or experience as a field manager.

SportsTurf: How do you help shape the STMA’s “vision” or strategic direction?

Heck: I have been so lucky to be included as an equal player in the strategic planning sessions by all of the Boards of Directors for whom I have served. These sessions give me the opportunity to weigh in on important issues facing the association and its membership. However, at the end of the day, it is the STMA Board who governs the association, and I am charged with executing their decisions.

A board member’s tenure on the board is maximum 7 years, and that means our board is constantly changing, with new board members coming on and others rotating off. New board members bring wonderful perspective and insight, yet for some organizations this fast rotation could be dysfunctional. The reason it works so well for STMA is that we have a 3-year strategic plan that guides the work of the board. That plan is the road map that helps to steer the board in its decision-making, resource allocation and priorities. The Board evaluates its progress to the current plan during each board meeting, and when we are in the final year of the plan, we usually have a facilitator help us go through the planning process to develop the next iteration of the plan.

SportsTurf: What is your role in building the culture and values of the association?

Heck: Our culture and values stem from those of our membership, and they have been set for quite a while. Our members are collegial, friendly and all-around really good people. My team and I work hard to mirror those qualities through our work at Headquarters. Many times when a new CEO comes to an organization, there are huge issues with the culture and the exec has to change the culture. This is the easiest part of my job. Those who served before me did an excellent job in sustaining the culture set by our Founders.

SportsTurf: CEOs have ultimate responsibility for an organization’s success. How do you prioritize all the functions you perform?

Heck: Association management is all about planning, project management and customer service. I think I am a fairly good time manager, spending my time on the things that are important to advancing the association. I have a great staff who do their jobs really well, so that I can concentrate on my responsibilities. We have a genuine team environment and if there is something that needs immediate attention, we can turn-on-a-dime and tackle it together. We are all crossed trained and that is important. I am a notorious list keeper and calendar scheduler. These help keep me on track.

SportsTurf: What are the most important issues facing your members in the next few years and how is the STMA approaching those issues?

Heck: Right now, there are five issues that keep me up at night!

First, the rapid and increasing pace of technological change makes it harder for our members to keep up. STMA is working on streamlining all of our continuing education offerings. We’re planning an STMA app that will bring information to members when and where they need it. Our website is evolving to a more user friendly and responsive environment; we are pushing out technical information via social media; and at our physical conference each year, we have sessions on technology to help our membership become more effective.

Second, information is so electronically available that associations are no longer the only source for its membership. That can have huge ramifications for retention and growth. We are countering this trend by making member connectivity an extremely vital component of membership. A member might be able to Google information, but members connecting with members on real world solutions provide the highest value and that’s where STMA is focused on making a difference.

My third concern is about students: enrollment in turfgrass science is declining. The profession may be faced with a shortage of qualified sports field managers in the future. This could result in unqualified people managing fields, which could impact how the profession is viewed externally. Conversely, higher demand coupled with lower supply can drive higher salaries for qualified managers. STMA has developed a turfgrass science curriculum targeted to high school students to introduce them to the profession. We are working hard to get it into programs that are not only ag ed, but into mainstream science classes.

Next, increasing environmental regulations affect the work of our members. As more governmental regulations affect use of products, and require more stringent management practices, STMA has the opportunity to become the go-to resource for information. We are rolling out an Environmental Facility Certification Program that has the opportunity to promote our members as the environmental stewards they are and bring more credibility to the profession. This certification can help to counter the wave of indiscriminate restrictions that have no basis in fact.

Lastly, synthetic turf is top-of-mind. The issue isn’t with synthetic turf; it is with the employers’ not understanding the value of a sports field manager and the job that they do. Our members are not being invited to the table when decisions are being made about field surfaces. STMA is focused on promoting the value of a sports field manager to employers, sportscasters, and spectators. We are taking a leadership role in the sports world by creating awareness that the quality of the playing surface is essential to the game and the athlete’s safety. To do this we need professional help. We hired Buffalo as I mentioned previously. They are a top-notch PR firm that is gaining publicity for individual members, the association and the profession. They are helping us to tell success stories about natural grass fields. We also aggressively promote our members’ technical expertise as speakers, presenters and authors. Our primary targets are associations and organizations (and their publications) that our members’ employers interact with, such as NRPA, the Athletic Business Conference, and the Green Sports Summit, to name a few.

SportsTurf: What do you do outside work?

Heck: I bought a house within walking distance of STMA’s headquarters (so I seem to spend quite a bit of time there!). I live in the oldest and most diverse neighborhood in Lawrence, where I serve as the neighborhood association’s Secretary. I also fundraise for that association and volunteer at our neighborhood events. I get together with friends often, sometimes in our official capacity as a book club and a wine club (our book club reads wine labels!). I practice yoga and do cardio, weights and Pilates in formal classes each week. I tried boxing, but that didn’t work out so well. I also love to cook and garden and have six raised beds. One of my daughters left me with her mastiff when she got a new puppy, so that dog pretty much has me doing whatever she wants. Two of my children were married within 14 months of each other (the most recent was in September), so those weddings kept me busy, too.